Poised at the starting gate are palm oil, sugar cane, corn cobs, and switch grass. On your mark, get set... This is not a race among fruits and vegetables, but instead a real-life contest to decide which biofuel raw materials and technologies make it to the gas pump. That quest to develop a sustainable supply of affordable biofuels and bring them to the market is the topic of the cover story in the current edition of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), ACS’s weekly newsmagazine.
C&EN Senior Correspondent Stephen Ritter notes that scientists have largely met the technical challenges of developing biofuels — fuels made from renewable biological resources — to supplement and eventually replace gasoline and diesel fuel. Starting points for biofuels include sugars, starches, vegetable oils, recycled paper, and other biomass. All of those materials can be processed into fuels. The benefits include energy security by eliminating dependence on imported oil and a reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
But the technological fog of uncertainties obscures the road to the finish line. One major problem, for example, involves the logistics of biomass availability, transport, and storage. To be commercially viable, biomass fuel factories will need up to 30 million pounds of biomass per day. Fermentation facilities, which convert sugar to ethanol, would need about 10 million pounds. To win, companies must develop long-term reliable feedstock supplies and find partners to buy and market their fuel.